I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees. You will come to see it in your own way, you will experience things for yourself and live a life of your own, so of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.
Autumn, (Seasons Quartet), Karl Ove Knausgaard
I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Pleased that there would be three books to follow, I planned to review Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, Autumn (Seasons Quartet) this month – but am too disappointed to finish. The Norwegian makes his living writing about himself but usually has the knack of making the reader feel like he could be writing about them. That is one reason why his self-absorbed prose has been read so widely.
“When I was a fairly small child” Knausgaard tells us in Autumn, “I began to eat the whole apple. Not just the flesh, but the core with all the pips in it, even the stem”. Usually his writing reflects this to the core attitude but Autumn is barely peeled compared to his My Struggle books. One often wonders why it is named Autumn (other than the publishing bonanza of the next three books).
Knausgaard is writing for his unborn child and is looking outwards in an effort to show her the world she will get to experience later for herself. In endeavouring to see the world anew, it feels like he sees it like everyone else (and most of us cannot write publishable prose).
I look forward to his daughter’s review.
Maybe I should come back to Autumn in a month or two. Contextually, I stopped re-reading Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller the moment the pre-order of Knausgaard’s new book arrived on my e-reader. This likely impacted on my enjoyment of Autumn as Miller’s prose is so extraordinary. Orwell, in his 1940 review of Miller’s writing, makes the point:
…read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. ‘He knows all about me’, you feel; ‘he wrote this specially for me.’ It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylised, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognisable experiences of human beings.
Knausgaard himself knows he has not ascended to the literary summit. He reviewed the latest book by French author Michel Houellebecq, who like Miller, is a controversial novelist able to make one splutter with guilty laughter or outrage. Depending on your sensibility, one is always amused, horrified, stimulated and challenged by what he says. Like Miller (and Knausgaard), Houellebecq often appears as a character in his own work. Knausgaard says in his review:
“What prevents me from reading Houellebecq and watching von Trier is a kind of envy — not that I begrudge them success, but by reading the books and watching the films I would be reminded of how excellent a work of art can be, and of how far beneath that level my own work is…I shield myself from by ignoring Houellebecq’s books and von Trier’s films. That may sound strange, and yet it can hardly be unusual. If you’re a carpenter, for instance, and you keep hearing about the amazing work of another carpenter, you’re not necessarily going to seek it out, because what would be the good of having it confirmed that there is a level of excellence to which you may never aspire? Better to close your eyes and carry on with your own work, pretending the master carpenter doesn’t exist.”
Which brings me back to Miller and Orwell. I originally read both Tropic of Cancer and Inside the Whale, Orwell’s essay review of Miller’s autobiographical novel almost thirty years ago. At that time I was largely ignorant of either writers life story or significance as literary figures. I certainly was not cognisant that they met (even though it is mentioned by Orwell in his essay) or understanding they both lived in Paris at the same time, down and out. That probably seems a little strange but the essay was part of a collection and I had already read Miller’s novel a couple of years before not realising Orwell had reviewed it.
This time, I returned to Miller’s novel after a long period of obsessively reading Orwell, including his letters mentioning Miller and published reviews. I now know that Miller’s work was banned and that the authorities came to Orwell’s home. See this letter to his publisher:
Dear Mr Gollancz,
I cannot at this moment lend you “Tropic of Cancer”, because my copy has been seized. While I was writing my last book two detectives suddenly arrived at my house with orders from the public prosecutor to seize all books which I had “received through the post”. A letter of mine addressed to the Obelisk Press had been seized and opened in the post. The police were only carrying out orders and were very nice about it, and even the public prosecutor wrote and said that he understood that as a writer I might have a need for books which it was illegal to possess.
Orwell was disappointed when he met Miller (although very happy with the coat he lent him for Spain) who had little interest in the grand political narratives of the era. Miller could understand a man travelling to a civil war for the experience but not to fight for a cause. Orwell saw Miller as a “hard-boiled person talking about life” and admired his “intellectual courage and a gift for words”. Tropic of Cancer had prose that was “astonishing, and in parts of Black Spring it is even better”. He describes Miller’s style as “a flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different…”.
I cherry-picked passages from Tropic of Cancer to illustrate these points, especially the sensation that Orwell had this was written specially for him:
Along the Champs-Elysées, ideas pouring from me like sweat. I ought to be rich enough to have a secretary to whom I could dictate as I walk, because my best thoughts always come when I am away from the machine.
…wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it, the trees leaning to, the broken images in the water, the rush of the current under the bloody lights of the bridges, the women sleeping in doorways, sleeping on newspapers, sleeping in the rain; everywhere the musty porches of the cathedrals and beggars and lice and old hags full of St Vitus’ dance; pushcarts stacked up like wine barrels in the side streets, the smell of berries in the market place and the old church surrounded with vegetables and blue arc lights, the gutters slippery with garbage and women in satin pumps staggering through the filth and vermin at the end of an all-night souse.
‘Everybody wants to see me. Everybody insists on talking to me. People pester me and they pester others with inquiries about what I am doing. How am I? Am I quite well again? Do I still go for my walks in the country? Am I working? Have I finished my book? Will I begin another soon?
‘Great God! what have I turned into? What right have you people to clutter up my life, steal my time, probe my soul, suckle my thoughts, have me for your companion, confidant, and information bureau? What do you take me for? Am I an entertainer on salary, required every morning to play an intellectual farce under your stupid noses? Am I a slave, bought and paid for, to crawl on my belly in front of you idlers and lay at your feet all that I do and all that I know?
An artist is always alone – if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness. The artist, I call myself. So be it.
Orwell’s essay, Inside the Whale, is one that I have read many times over the years. It still startles see how clearly the significance of Miller’s achievement and the influence he would have “as the starting-point of a new ‘school’” (of literature) is conveyed by Orwell. He knew that Miller was “a writer out of the ordinary” and “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses”. Orwell advises:
Get inside the whale—or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt.
This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. Tropic of Cancer
Orwell knows that “orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature”. Miller, like Orwell with his ‘compulsion’ to be a writer, knows that he has no choice but write, to “sing”, and that it is “essential” for his being. I suspect that Knausgaard had the same inclinations and just had to write.The first two books of My Struggle certainly feel far from conventional. There is an edge, an urgency and a spare honesty in his prose. Whereas Autumn feels so very, very orthodox and boring.
Fatherhood may prove ruinous for Knausgaard’s prose.
Other titles read during August
The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed (2016) by Julie Barlow
J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (2000) by Wayne G. Hammond, Christina Scull
Inside George Orwell (2006) by Gordon Bowker
George Orwell: English Rebel, (2013) by Robert Colls
Orwell’s London (1984) by John Thompson
The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (2005/1966) by George Woodcock